Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 19 • 1871’

The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 19 • 1871

The nineteenth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1871.

It was a busy year for Darwin. In addition to the publication of The Descent of Man, which brought plenty of correspondence in its aftermath, the year also saw him working on his next book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and revising The Origin of Species for its sixth and final edition. (In this edition, Darwin dropped the word ‘On’ from the title.)

Darwin’s decision to revise Origin seems to have been made at short notice, being largely driven by his wish to address recent criticism by zoologist St George Jackson Mivart, which I describe in more detail in edition 18 of the Friends of Charles Darwin newsletter. Below are listed some highlights regarding Darwin’s disagreement with Mivart, followed by some more general highlights from his correspondence for 1871.

Highlights from Mivart-related correspondence

  • Darwin telling his best friend, Joseph Dalton Hooker, he thinks Mivart’s book against him is very good, but unfortunately theological.
  • Darwin congratulating Mivart for summarising the many objections to natural selection very well, but informing him he has answers to most.
  • Darwin asking Mivart to remove accusations of dogmatism on Darwin’s part from any future edition of his book, and Mivart undertaking to do so, or to explain his reasoning.
  • Mivart admitting his religious misgivings regarding natural selection, saying, ‘Unhappily the acceptance of your views means with many the abandonment of belief in God. […] I am persuaded you only seek the promotion of truth though I regret you do not more protect against these unnecessary irreligious deductions.’
  • Mivart saying he fully accepts evolution, but cannot accept Darwin’s ‘exaggerated view of the action of “Natural Selection”’.
  • Darwin expressing his frustration about Mivart’s book to Alexander Agassiz: “There is not one new point in it though many are admirably illustrated. Mivart never racks his brains to see, what can be fairly said on the opposite side, and he argues as if I had said nothing about the effects of use or the direct action of external conditions; though in another part of the book on those points almost every illustration is taken from my writings & observations.”
  • Darwin explaining to his friend Alfred Russel Wallace: “You will think me a bigot, when I say after studying Mivart, I was never before in my life so convinced of general (i.e. not in detail) truth of views in the Origin.”
  • Darwin approaching his publisher regarding re-printing a recent American paper critical of Mivart’s book.
  • Thomas Henry Huxley informing Darwin he has written article highly critical of Mivart, being clearly amused to find himself having to defend Catholic orthodoxy against Mivart, but going on to say, “I am sorry to be obliged to pitch into Mivart, who has done good work & is by no means a bad fellow.”

Highlights from other correspondence

  • Darwin unsuccessfully petitioning his neighbour and friend John Lubbock, M.P. for a telegraph to be installed in their village.
  • Darwin being anxious to finish writing The Descent of Man, writing: “Good God how glad I shall be when I can drive the whole of the confounded book out of my head—”.
  • Alfred Russel Wallace, who had come to differ with Darwin on a couple of important issues, expressing relief at Darwin’s ‘tenderness’ in The Descent of Man towards Wallace’s ‘heresies’.
  • Darwin famously imagining the origin of life ‘in some warm little pond’.
  • The director of a Yorkshire lunatic asylum sending his observations of crying and laughter in his patients, and later on blushing.
  • Darwin receiving a poem written in the style of Robert Burns.
  • Physicist John Tyndall comparing humans’ hairy nostrils with firemen’s respirators.
  • Darwin receiving a highly eccentric letter from ‘A child of God’.
  • Darwin receiving another letter from a religiously motivated correspondent comparing his appearance to that of an ape. (Darwin was suitably amused.)
  • The Russian translator of The Descent of Man, having to go to court to try to overturn a publishing ban by the Russian government.
  • Darwin being very pleased with Wallace’s review of The Descent of Man, and responding to Wallace’s thoughts on protective coloration.
  • Darwin planning a gift of around £25–£50 to his daughter Henrietta as thanks for her work on The Descent of Man.
  • Darwin’s views on vivisection.
  • Darwin sending condolences to Robert Chambers’ recently bereaved daughter, saying he had under appreciated Chambers’ anonymously published work, Vestiges of Creation.
  • Darwin defending his provisional (and incorrect) hypothesis of Pangenesis in the journal Nature in response to a recent paper by his half-cousin Francis Galton.
  • Darwin providing advice to the members of a new American club on how to go about studying biology: the importance of speculation, observation, and being prepared to drop pet theories once they have been shown to be false.
  • Darwin claiming so many people have now changed their minds to his way of thinking since the publication of On the Origin of Species, he believes they are likely to do the same in ten years regarding The Descent of Man.
  • Darwin’s affectionate letter to his daughter Henrietta Litchfield after her marriage, and her equally affectionate reply.
  • Darwin on avoiding writing on religious matters: “Many years ago I was strongly advised by a friend never to introduce anything about religion—in my works, if I wished to advance science in England; & this led me not to consider the mutual bearings of the two subjects. Had I foreseen, how much more liberal the world would become, I shd. perhaps have acted differently.”
  • Darwin speculating to his son Horace on what makes someone a discoverer of new things: “As far as I can conjecture, the art consists in habitually searching for the causes or meaning of everything which occurs. This implies sharp observation & requires as much knowledge as possible of the subjects investigated.”
  • A field report from Darwin’s son George, who has been measuring ancient ridges and furrow with his brother Horace to assist with Darwin’s earthworm studies.

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Charles Darwin. As with all the other volumes, every letter is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references. The series as a whole is a masterpiece of scholarship.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.

Richard Carter

Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. He is currently working on a book about looking at the world through Darwin’s eyes.Website · Newsletter · Mastodon · Facebook

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